Which Native Americans Lived in Tipis?

by Scott Thompson

The tipi was the traditional dwelling of Plains Indian tribes that lived by hunting bison. The tipi is a cone-shaped tent made of skins or fabric draped over poles. Because a tipi can be assembled or disassembled relatively quickly, this type of dwelling was convenient and efficient for hunters following the bison herds across the plains. The Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Comanche, Blackfoot and other Great Plains tribes all used tipis.

The Tipi Stereotype

The tipi has become a stereotypical symbol of the American Indian, but its use was actually prevalent only among the nomadic bison hunters of the Great Plains. Tribes from other areas had other types of dwellings depending on their local needs and available building materials. For instance, a number of tribes in the Great Lakes region and the Northeast used domed structures called wigwams made from poles and bark, while several tribes in the Southeast lived in wattle-and-daub homes with thatched roofs. Dwellings of Southwestern tribes include the pueblo and the hogan. Tribes did not always restrict themselves to one type of dwelling.

History of the Tipi

Before the Spanish came to North America, the tribes of the Great Plains were nomadic, foraging and migrating in search of food. Tribes further to the east practiced agriculture and lived in settled villages. The Western tribes used tipis because of their mobile lifestyle, but the only pack animal they had to help them pull the disassembled tipis from one place to another was the dog. Dogs could pull tipi poles no more than 14 feet long, placing a limit on the size of dwellings. When the Spanish introduced horses to the Plains, Western tribes such as the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux and Comanche began to make much larger tipis using poles 18 to 20 feet long or longer. They became much more mobile and were able to follow the large bison herds.

Design of the Tipi

Tipis were made by draping treated bison hides, canvas or cloth around a cone-shaped frame of poles. The floor was made of straw covered with hides, with the household fire in the middle of the floor and smoke flaps to keep the interior from becoming too smoky. Up to 12 people could live in an average-sized tipi, sleeping with their feet facing the fire to keep them warm. Tipis were originally made with bison hides, but canvas- and cloth-covered tipis became common in the late 19th century after bison became hard to find.

Styles of Tipi

Different tribes built their tipis in different styles. The Cheyenne, Sioux and Mandan used a three-pole design, but the Hidatsa, Crow and Omaha used four poles. The three-pole design was held together by a lariat at the top, but the four-pole design could stand up without a lariat because the poles were set up to interlock and reinforce each other. Tipis in the southern part of the Great Plains were not usually painted, but some tribes in the northern Plains painted the outsides of their tipis to decorate them.

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